The Intrusion of Jimmy/Chapter 24

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CHAPTER XXIV


THE TREASURE-SEEKER


GLOOM wrapped his lordship about, during dinner, as with a garment. He owed twenty pounds. His assets amounted to seven shillings and fourpence. He thought, and thought again. Quite an intellectual pallor began to appear on his normally pink cheeks. Saunders, silently sympathetic—he hated Sir Thomas as an interloper, and entertained for his lordship, under whose father also he had served, a sort of paternal fondness—was ever at his elbow with the magic bottle; and to Spennie, emptying and reëmptying his glass almost mechanically, wine, the healer, brought an idea. To obtain twenty pounds from any one person of his acquaintance was impossible. To divide the twenty by four, and persuade a generous quartette to contribute five pounds apiece was more feasible.

Hope began to stir within him again.

Immediately after dinner, he began to flit about the castle like a family specter of active habits. The first person he met was Charteris.

"Hullo, Spennie," said Charteris, "I wanted to see you. It is currently reported that you are in love. At dinner, you looked as if you had influenza. What's your trouble? For goodness' sake, bear up till the show's over. Don't go swooning on the stage, or anything. Do you know your lines?"

"The fact is," said his lordship eagerly, "it's this way. I happen to want— Can you lend me a fiver?"

"All I have in the world at this moment," said Charteris, "is eleven shillings and a postage-stamp. If the stamp would be of any use to you as a start—? No? You know, it's from small beginnings like that that great fortunes are amassed. However—"

Two minutes later, Lord Dreever had resumed his hunt.

The path of the borrower is a thorny one, especially if, like Spennie, his reputation as a payer-back is not of the best.

Spennie, in his time, had extracted small loans from most of his male acquaintances, rarely repaying the same. He had a tendency to forget that he had borrowed half-a-crown here to pay a cab and ten shillings there to settle up for a dinner; and his memory was not much more retentive of larger sums. This made his friends somewhat wary. The consequence was that the great treasure-hunt was a failure from start to finish. He got friendly smiles. He got honeyed apologies. He got earnest assurances of good-will. But he got no money, except from Jimmy Pitt.

He had approached Jimmy in the early stages of the hunt; and Jimmy, being in the mood when he would have loaned anything to anybody, yielded the required five pounds without a murmur.

But what was five pounds? The garment of gloom and the intellectual pallor were once more prominent when his lordship repaired to his room to don the loud tweeds which, as Lord Herbert, he was to wear in the first act.

There is a good deal to be said against stealing, as a habit; but it cannot be denied that, in certain circumstances, it offers an admirable solution of a financial difficulty, and, if the penalties were not so exceedingly unpleasant, it is probable that it would become far more fashionable than it is.

His lordship's mind did not turn immediately to this outlet from his embarrassment. He had never stolen before, and it did not occur to him directly to do so now. There is a conservative strain in all of us. But, gradually, as it was borne in upon him that it was the only course possible, unless he were to grovel before Hargate on the morrow and ask for time to pay—an unthinkable alternative—he found himself contemplating the possibility of having to secure the money by unlawful means. By the time he had finished his theatrical toilet, he had definitely decided that this was the only thing to be done.

His plan was simple. He knew where the money was, in the dressing-table in Sir Thomas's room. He had heard Saunders instructed to put it there. What could be easier than to go and get it? Everything was in his favor. Sir Thomas would be downstairs, receiving his guests. The coast would be clear. Why, it was like finding the money.

Besides, he reflected, as he worked his way through the bottle of Mumm's which he had had the forethought to abstract from the supper-table as a nerve-steadier, it wasn't really stealing. Dash it all, the man had given him the money! It was his own! He had half a mind—he poured himself out another glass of the elixir—to give Sir Thomas a jolly good talking-to into the bargain. Yes, dash it all!

He shot his cuffs fiercely. The British Lion was roused.

A man's first crime is, as a rule, a shockingly amateurish affair. Now and then, it is true, we find beginners forging with the accuracy of old hands, or breaking into houses with the finish of experts. But these are isolated cases. The average tyro lacks generalship altogether. Spennie Dreever may be cited as a typical novice. It did not strike him that inquiries might be instituted by Sir Thomas, when he found the money gone, and that suspicion might conceivably fall upon himself. Courage may be born of champagne, but rarely prudence.

The theatricals began at half-past eight with a duologue. The audience had been hustled into their seats, happier than is usual in such circumstances, owing to the rumor which had been circulated that the proceedings were to terminate with an informal dance. The castle was singularly well constructed for such a purpose. There was plenty of room, and a sufficiency of retreat for those who sat out, in addition to a conservatory large enough to have married off half the couples in the county.

Spennie's idea had been to establish an alibi by mingling with the throng for a few minutes, and then to get through his burglarious specialty during the duologue, when his absence would not be noticed. It might be that, if he disappeared later in the evening, people would wonder what had become of him.

He lurked about until the last of the audience had taken their seats. As he was moving off through the hall, a hand fell upon his shoulder. Conscience makes cowards of us all. Spennie bit his tongue and leaped three inches into the air.

"Hello, Charteris!" he said, gaspingly.

Charteris appeared to be in a somewhat overwrought condition. Rehearsals had turned him into a pessimist, and, now that the actual moment of production had arrived, his nerves were in a thoroughly jumpy condition, especially as the duologue was to begin in two minutes and the obliging person who had undertaken to prompt had disappeared.

"Spennie," said Charteris, "where are you off to?"

"What—what do you mean? I was just going upstairs."

"No, you don't. You've got to come and prompt. That devil Blake has vanished. I'll wring his neck! Come along."

Spennie went, reluctantly. Half-way through the duologue, the official prompter returned with the remark that he had been having a bit of a smoke on the terrace, and that his watch had gone wrong. Leaving him to discuss the point with Charteris, Spennie slipped quietly away.

The delay, however, had had the effect of counteracting the uplifting effects of the Mumm's. The British Lion required a fresh fillip. He went to his room to administer it. By the time he emerged, he was feeling just right for the task in hand. A momentary doubt occurred to him as to whether it would not be a good thing to go down and pull Sir Thomas' nose as a preliminary to the proceedings; but he put the temptation aside. Business before pleasure.

With a jaunty, if somewhat unsteady, step, he climbed the stairs to the floor above, and made his way down the corridor to Sir Thomas's room. He switched on the light, and went to the dressing-table. The drawer was locked, but in his present mood Spennie, like Love, laughed at locksmiths. He grasped the handle, and threw his weight into a sudden tug. The drawer came out with a report like a pistol-shot.

"There!" said his lordship, wagging his head severely.

In the drawer lay the four bank-notes. The sight of them brought back his grievance with a rush. He would teach Sir Thomas to treat him like a kid! He would show him!

He was removing the notes, frowning fiercely the while, when he heard a cry of surprise from behind him.

He turned, to see Molly. She was still dressed in the evening gown she had worn at dinner; and her eyes were round with wonder. A few moments earlier, as she was seeking her room in order to change her costume for the theatricals, she had almost reached the end of the corridor that led to the landing, when she observed his lordship, flushed of face and moving like some restive charger, come curvetting out of his bedroom in a dazzling suit of tweeds, and make his way upstairs. Ever since their mutual encounter with Sir Thomas before dinner, she had been hoping for a chance of seeing Spennie alone. She had not failed to notice his depression during the meal, and her good little heart had been troubled by the thought that she must have been responsible for it. She knew that, for some reason, what she had said about the letter had brought his lordship into his uncle's bad books, and she wanted to find him and say she was sorry.

Accordingly, she had followed him. His lordship, still in the war-horse vein, had made the pace upstairs too hot, and had disappeared while she was still halfway up. She had arrived at the top just in time to see him turn down the passage into Sir Thomas's dressing-room. She could not think what his object might be. She knew that Sir Thomas was downstairs, so it could not be from the idea of a chat with him that Spennie was seeking the dressing-room.

Faint, yet pursuing, she followed on his trail, and arrived in the doorway just as the pistol-report of the burst lock rang out.

She stood looking at him blankly. He was holding a drawer in one hand. Why, she could not imagine.

"Lord Dreever!" she exclaimed.

The somber determination of his lordship's face melted into a twisted, but kindly smile.

"Good!" he said, perhaps a trifle thickly. "Good! Glad you've come. We're pals. You said so—on stairs—b'fore dinner. Very glad you've come. Won't you sit down?"

He waved the drawer benevolently, by way of making her free of the room. The movement disturbed one of the bank-notes, which fluttered in Molly's direction, and fell at her feet.

She stooped and picked it up. When she saw what it was, her bewilderment increased.

"But—but—" she said.

His lordship beamed upon her with a pebble-beached smile of indiscribable good-will.

"Sit down," he urged. "We're pals. No quol with you. You're good friend. Quol—Uncle Thomas."

"But, Lord Dreever, what are you doing? What was that noise I heard?"

"Opening drawer," said his lordship, affably.

"But—" she looked again at what she had in her hand—"but this is a five-pound note."

"Five-pound note," said his lordship. "Quite right. Three more of them in here."

Still, she could not understand.

"But—were you—stealing them?"

His lordship drew himself up.

"No," he said, "no, not stealing, no!"

"Then—?"

"Like this. Before dinner. Old boy friendly as you please—couldn't do enough for me. Touched him for twenty of the best, and got away with it. So far, all well. Then, met you on stairs. You let cat out of bag."

"But why—? Surely—!"

His lordship gave the drawer a dignified wave.

"Not blaming you," he said, magnanimously. "Not your fault; misfortune. You didn't know. About letter."

"About the letter?" said Molly. "Yes, what was the trouble about the letter? I knew something was wrong directly I had said that I wrote it."

"Trouble was," said his lordship, "that old boy thought it was love-letter. Didn't undeceive him."

"You didn't tell him? Why?"

His lordship raised his eyebrows.

"Wanted touch him twenty of the best," he explained, simply.

For the life of her, Molly could not help laughing.

"Don't laugh," protested his lordship, wounded. "No joke. Serious. Honor at stake."

He removed the three notes, and replaced the drawer.

"Honor of the Dreevers!" he added, pocketing the money.

Molly was horrified.

"But, Lord Dreever!" she cried. "You can't! You musn't! You can't be going, really, to take that money! It's stealing! It isn't yours! You must put it back."

His lordship wagged a forefinger very solemnly at her.

"That," he said, "is where you make error! Mine! Old boy gave them to me."

"Gave them to you? Then, why did you break open the drawer?"

"Old boy took them back again—when he found out about letter."

"Then, they don't belong to you."

"Yes. Error! They do. Moral right."

Molly wrinkled her forehead in her agitation. Men of Lord Dreever's type appeal to the motherly instinct of women. As a man, his lordship was a negligible quantity. He did not count. But as a willful child, to be kept out of trouble, he had a claim on Molly.

She spoke soothingly.

"But, Lord Dreever,—" she began.

"Call me Spennie," he urged. "We're pals. You said so—on stairs. Everybody calls me Spennie—even Uncle Thomas. I'm going to pull his nose," he broke off suddenly, as one recollecting a forgotten appointment.

"Spennie, then," said Molly. "You mustn't, Spennie. You mustn't, really. You—"

"You look rippin' in that dress," said his lordship, irrelevantly.

"Thank you, Spennie, dear. But listen." Molly spoke as if she were humoring a rebellious infant. "You really mustn't take that money. You must put it back. See, I'm putting this note back. Give me the others, and I'll put them in the drawer, too. Then, we'll shut the drawer, and nobody will know."

She took the notes from him, and replaced them in the drawer. He watched her thoughtfully, as if he were pondering the merits of her arguments.

"No," he said, suddenly, "no! Must have them! Moral right. Old boy—"

She pushed him gently away.

"Yes, yes, I know," she said. "I know. It's a shame that you can't have them. But you mustn't take them. Don't you see that he would suspect you the moment he found they were gone, and then you'd get into trouble?"

"Something in that," admitted his lordship.

"Of course there is, Spennie, clear. I'm so glad you see! There they all are, safe again in the drawer. Now, we can go downstairs again, and—"

She stopped. She had closed the door earlier in the proceedings, but her quick ear caught the sound of a footstep in the passage outside.

"Quick!" she whispered, taking his hand and darting to the electric-light switch. "Somebody's coming. We mustn't be caught here. They'd see the broken drawer, and you'd get into awful trouble. Quick!"

She pushed him behind the curtain where the clothes hung, and switched off the light.

From behind the curtain came the muffled voice of his lordship.

"It's Uncle Thomas. I'm coming out. Pull his nose."

"Be quiet!"

She sprang to the curtain, and slipped noiselessly behind it.

"But, I say—!" began his lordship.

"Hush!"

She gripped his arm. He subsided.

The footsteps had halted outside the door. Then, the handle turned softly. The door opened, and closed again with hardly a sound.

The footsteps passed on into the room.